Recently I wrote about rediscovering a classic book, The Magic of Dialogue, written in 1999 by the late social scientist Daniel Yankeolvich. The simple premise is that dialogue is a valuable tool for building stronger relationships in the workplace--and by doing so, for helping your organization become more collaborative, innovative and successful.

But engaging in dialogue isn't easy to do--and it's even harder to do it well. People spend a lot of time talking at each other (PowerPoint presentations, I'm looking at you) rather than engaging in candid, productive conversation.

Luckily, Yankelovich's book provides advice about how to overcome the 5 most common obstacles to encouraging dialogue.

Obstacle 1: Starting with different levels of understanding

Dialogue participants often find themselves at different stages in what Yankelovich calls "the judgment curve," the process of gaining knowledge. Some people in the discussion are just learning about the topic, while others have thought about it for weeks or even months and have resolved the issue for themselves.

How to overcome the obstacle

Invest time in briefing participants so that everyone can get on the same page. And Yankelovich advises allocating "extra time for dialogue. Use the time to invite those who are further along in the process of resolution to recount how and why their thoughts evolved, permitting those in earlier stages of resolution to ask them questions and compare experiences."

Obstacle 2: Holding back

In every group of people, there will be those who are very comfortable expressing themselves. But others are introverted or timid. In any case, writes Yankelovich, some people, at least in the early stages, "hold back, unwilling to commit themselves. A key reason that people don't participate is that they don't feel trust. Because dialogue is so open, a certain amount of self-exposure is involved in it."

How to overcome the obstacle

Break the ice. "The approach I like best is to go around the room and ask each participant to say something about his or her own personal past experience that relates to the topic" being discussed, Yankelovich writes. "Eliciting this experience encourages people to move deeply into the subject because they are talking about their own lives and experiences."

Obstacle 3: Listening without hearing

A common obstacle is that some people don't make an extra effort to understand others when they are not wholly articulate. "Most people, especially when conflict-ridden, are unaccustomed to finding the rights words and phrases to express their feelings," writes Yankelovich. Ideally, everyone involved in a dialogue practice empathic listening, the ability to tune in to other people's feelings. But often, especially when tensions are high, impatient listeners just forge ahead.

How to overcome the obstacle

You know this already: The most useful technique is for participants to paraphrase what they think they heard the other person say. Even if the person speaking has been misunderstood, the act of other participants' playing back what they think they heard gives the speaker the opportunity to correct or amplify his/her position.

Obstacle 4: Showboating

Showboating, which Merriam Webster defines as "trying to to attract attention by conspicuous behavior," is all too common even among the highest level of leaders. "People, men in particular, can't resist the chance to show off how much they know, how smart they are, how tough-minded they can be, and how active they are as players in the game," writes Yankelovich.

How to overcome the obstacle

Yankelovich advises adding extra time for dialogue because "in most instance, the urge subsides once the showboaters have had a chance to express themselves." In addition, I've found that breakout exercises, especially those involving non-verbal activities like creating a poster, helps manage showboaters. When people have to work together to figure out a problem or build something, the focus is on accomplishing the task, not making a speech.

Obstacle 5: Prematurely moving to action

I'm guilty of this, which Yankelovich calls a "distinctly American problem. In a typical discussion, almost as soon as a problem surfaces, someone is bound to say, 'Well, what are we going to do about it?'" writes Yankelovich. "End of dialogue about problem; beginning of a rush of ideas for leaping into the fray and doing something, almost anything, as long as it smacks of taking action rather than more sitting around and talking." The problem is that a focus on swift action "short-circuits the process of probing the depths of other participants' thoughts, perceptions, feelings and assumptions that can provide a foundation for informed decision-making."

How to overcome the obstacle

Pause and ask team members whether or not more dialogue is needed. Sometimes the problem is lack of mutual understanding and a premature rush to action can only worsen it. So ask participants if they're really ready to make a shared decision. If anyone says, "Let's keep talking," then give the group more time to work things through.

Published on: Jul 13, 2018